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woman hands knitting
Credit: Esra Karakose/EyeEm/Getty

I've been a knitter since my teens, but not until I finished my second novel, "The Immortalists," did my sporadic hobby become a full-blown obsession. Mentally exhausted and in search of a more relaxing creative outlet, I picked up the needles that sat in a cotton basket and planned a project more ambitious than the scarves of years past: my first sweater. An open cardigan with a shawl collar, this pattern was my gateway drug. The catch? Making sweaters took time. Lots of it. I told myself that knitting was meditative, but it was also addicting: I could knit for hours without stopping as episodes of my favorite television shows played back-to-back onscreen. Even when my back began to hurt or I felt a headache building, I couldn't stop.

I knew that squinting at my needles wasn't helping my chronic migraines, and that huddling over a project contributed to the muscle tension in my shoulders. But I didn't think about the toll knitting was taking elsewhere until I began to experience a burning sensation in my forearms. Before long, I was waking up at night with one hand entirely numb. Worse, there was an ongoing ache in my wrists and hands, particularly around my thumb. I stopped being able to unload the dishwasher, open jars and even drive a car. I was only 28. How could I be suffering from symptoms that typically afflicted people two or three times my age? I didn't want to admit that something I loved so much could be hurting me.

I avoided seeking professional help. Instead, I tried to self-diagnose. I found a homeopathic tendon cream and applied it throughout the day. I bought a wrist brace and wore it nightly. I searched for knitting-specific stretches on YouTube. When nothing helped, I made an appointment with Karen Blaschke, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at the UW Health Hand and Upper Extremity Rehabilitation Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. "I'll try anything," I told her. "Just don't make me stop knitting."

Blaschke probed my muscles and joints. She asked me to make certain shapes with my hands and tell her which ones hurt. She observed the flexibility of my wrists and elbows. After my online research, I'd concluded that I had carpal tunnel or perhaps a type of tendinitis specific to the thumb called De Quervain's syndrome, but I was wrong. "Hypermobility," Blaschke said. "Your joints are unusually flexible-especially this one." She pointed to the joint at the base of my thumb, the one that hurt when I clutched a steering wheel or held my knitting needles. "That means there's a greater risk of sprains, dislocations, and other injuries. And while I don't want to scare you, it's possible for joint hypermobility to lead to arthritis."

The diagnosis was sobering. Joint hypermobility isn't an injury, though it can lead to injury; rather, it's a condition I was likely born with, caused by things like bone shape and abnormal collagen. Blaschke showed me a brace that supported the thumb joint; because the wrist braces I'd bought on my own left the thumb free, and had likely exacerbated the problem. She instructed me to rest my hand completely. At the same time, she was sensitive to my desire to keep knitting. After a week of total rest and use of my new braces, she said I could add knitting back in for five or ten minutes at a time. She showed me a series of exercises that would strengthen the muscles around my thumb joint, such as one in which I made a "C" with my thumb and index finger. She even referred me to another therapist in my network who was a knitter herself, and who helped me to find knitting postures that supported the muscles in my forearms and hands. I began to knit with a pillow under each elbow and another, flatter one under the project itself; that way, I didn't have the weight of two needles and a heavy sweater hanging from my thumb and index finger alone.

I was humbled by how wrong I had been about my own body. As my hands continued to heal, I committed myself to learning more. My research brought me to Carson Demers, a physical therapist who develops and manages the award-winning ergonomics program at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco. Demers is also a passionate knitter who teaches classes across the country on ergonomic knitting, and he had just published "Knitting Comfortably: The Ergonomics of Handknitting." I ordered it immediately. The beautiful, coffee table-sized tome changed the way I thought about my hobby. Carson pointed out that when knitters focus on the fabric they're creating, they often neglect the fabric of their own bodies: the muscles, tendons and ligaments, the nerves and joints. In order to knit sustainably, we must care for ourselves as much as we do our projects-and that requires us to pay attention to the all of the ways we put strain on our bodies.

"Like many of the tasks that we do in the electronic age, such as computing, using tablets and smart phones, and driving, knitting is often done seated and for long duration," Carson wrote by email. "Knitting also uses the same upper extremity muscle groups-and even movements-that these tasks do, which can lead to overuse. Since it's done seated, which it needn't be, core muscle groups are under-utilized, making you susceptible to deconditioning and other musculoskeletal problems.

knit socks
Credit: Nathan Jandl

Carson's book reminded me to drink water while I knit, confirming my secret belief that knitting is an athletic event and should clearly be inducted into the Olympics. I experimented with different kinds of needles and yarn weights, discovering that bulky yarns and metal needles are hardest on my hands. Most critically, I stopped knitting for multihour marathons. I began to take breaks, and I stretched my hands and forearms after each knitting session.

I asked Carson to recommend three easy modifications that any knitter can benefit from. Number one? Add some movement to your knitting: Carson suggests standing for part of the time. Next, pay attention to how you pair needles with yarn. "Stickier" yarns-those that are rougher, with more friction-are best paired with smooth metal needles. Smoother, even slippery fibers, on the other hand, such as silk or merino wool, can be matched with a material that offer more grip, such as wood or bamboo, reducing the work that your hands have to do to keep stitches on your needles. Third, Carson says, "if you do sit while you knit, think of your chair as a tool. You wouldn't run a marathon in dress shoes, so make sure the chair is appropriate, supportive, and well fitted."

Reading Carson's book also reminded me that there is no one-size-fits-all recovery: only a professional can create a treatment plan that helps instead of exacerbates specific issues. In addition to conditions such as carpal tunnel, tendonitis and arthritis, knitters are at risk of repetitive stress injuries. "RSI is a poorly understood symptom complex that usually involves pain associated with use of the hand," said Michael Hausman, M.D., Chief of Hand and Elbow Surgery for the Mount Sinai Health System. "The cause remains unknown, and it is sometimes confused with other relatively common conditions such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. However, it does not respond to treatment for these conditions." You guessed it: Yhe most common treatment involves minimizing the activities that caused the pain. "While there is no scientifically validated treatment," he said, "the good news is that eventually, most symptoms seem to improve [in] months or even years."

My recovery was incremental: Two months after my pain began, I could knit for five or ten minutes at a time. After four months, though, I had regained much of my strength with the help of regular exercises, breaks and reduced knitting time overall. Now, seven months after my pain became acute, I can knit daily for an hour or two without discomfort. Ultimately, my injury forced me to slow down and remember why I love knitting in the first place. I had become so focused on productivity that I had forgotten I knit for relaxation, for the simple pleasure of each stitch. Now I marvel at the slow transformation of yarn into knitted object. What's the rush? After all, my knitted pieces, like my body, should be well cared-for-and built to last a lifetime.

Comments (9)

Martha Stewart Member
February 10, 2020
Thank you for SUCH A WONDERFUL ARTICLE! I was about to chuck it all in and sell everything - my knitting needles, crochet hooks and my yarn because I could no longer do more than a few stitches without MAJOR problems. My sleep has been disrupted because of the pain. Now I know where to start looking for answers! I was taught to knit and crochet when I was six and it has been a constant in my life, so the thought of having to give it up was very, very, very upsetting. Thank you very much!!
Martha Stewart Member
December 21, 2019
I have had the exact problem with my forearms and thumb from obsessive knitting. I was able to heal my right arm after about a year of abstaining, but the thumb is still a problem. I was quite relieved to read that there is help if I seek it. Thanks for telling your experience and treatment.
Martha Stewart Member
July 25, 2019
I have hypermobility spectrum disorder, which means this happens to pretty much all of my joints. I am still a teenager myself, so thanks for the tips!
Martha Stewart Member
March 20, 2019
What a great article. As I got older I had trouble crocheting for any length of time. So I took up more knitting patterns. When I knit my hands don't hurt and I can knit longer. Now that I am retired and no longer do computer work I am back to crocheting more. I have learned to not do it longer than 2 hours at one sitting.😀
Martha Stewart Member
March 7, 2019
I am so relieved there is a solution to the pain, because like many of us, knitting is so therapeutic ! Out of curiosity, what kind of brace did Dr.Blaschke give you ? I have one for each hands without thumb support I wear at night that I had while still working. I also wear a handcraft wrist which helps as long as I don't knit like a mad woman for hours. Thanks again for the wonderful article !
Martha Stewart Member
February 12, 2019
Thanks for the great article! I clicked on the link and unfortunately found that the book is no longer available on Amazon. Any other suggestions for where we could find the book?
Martha Stewart Member
June 11, 2018
Wow, this article makes me feel less lonely. I am 20 years old and this exact same problem has ruined my knitting practice. In the past 5 months studying abroad, I've been knitting constantly to keep myself comfortable in an unusual environment. I would knit for hours in class, in public, and before bed. I've always considered knitting therapeutic, however now, the one practice I love causes me so much pain in my right thumb and torso, from a weakened core. Hearing your story goes much further than reading tips on stretches for knitting pain. I'm going to look into hyper-mobility in the thumb and start going to the gym again. Thank you so much for posting this!!
Martha Stewart Member
March 26, 2018
I no longer knit. I knitted fanatically for years. Had Carpal Tunnel surgery. My pain is gone. MD said I could knot 20 minutes at time. I don`t know if I have that much self I do not knit anymore.
Martha Stewart Member
March 22, 2018
Unfortunately, the book on knitting ergonomics is no longer available. Perhaps a word from Martha could persuade the publisher and/or Amazon to reprint it?